Harlem Goes To Korea

August 13, 2017

By K.C. Washington

Writing is hard. But writing anywhere is easy, or at least it is for me. Take me and Korea. Yes, Korea. I am a single, middle-aged woman, who after years of tending bar and writing in between, decided to pull up stakes and take my show on the road.


Why not?

I am one of those lucky creative types who have never felt confined to a certain desk, pen, or city. I’ve written on the New York City Subway, on buses from St. Louis heading back to my campus at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and on napkins while working behind a bar. So the idea of scanning what I can of three years of notes, research on 1920s Harlem, and putting the most precious bits in my carry-on to fly halfway around the world doesn’t faze me much. I actually feel emboldened, in great company. After all, such patron saints as our own Angelou (Ghana), Baldwin (France), Jessie Redmon Fauset (France), and of course Langston (the World) all wrote as they traveled or lived abroad.

Travel, living abroad as a Harlem writer (and member of the Harlem Writers Guild) makes perfect sense. As they say, Harlem is not merely a place or a neighborhood but a state of mind. A place, a neighborhood, a state of mind imbued with a heaping helping of Africa, a pinch of Latin America and a soupçon of Europe. Harlem is America and Harlem is the world. And although I am a native Californian and a 26 year veteran of New York City, I think of myself as a global citizen.

So here I am in Sacheon, a small coastal town in the very south of this small Asian peninsula. Now, instead of tending to the needs of tipplers, I now struggle to infuse third, fourth, and fifth graders with the joy of the English language and in between I write.

What a heady sensation to sit in my cute little studio, intermittently staring out of my window onto Korean street life, as I wrestle sentence after sentence in the second draft of the second book in my yet to be published Roaring Twenties mystery series. Tone, pacing and just the right word to bring to life the world of a Harlem shimmy dancer in 1926, may be hard to capture, but the act of writing has been surprisingly easy.

Through the wonders of technology, I can check in with my agent every couple of weeks. I can order books for my Kindle, and I can Google. And as always thinking ahead—a bone deep habit from years of writing historical fiction—I made sure to pack my New York City library card and my membership information which unlocks all the invaluable wonders of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, without which I would be truly lost in the world.

And as for the living? That too has been easy. Unlike Baldwin and Hughes who lived abroad by the skin of their teeth for years, I prepared. I am more like Jessie Redmon Fauset, the talented literary editor of the NAACP’s The Crisis magazine and the author of the 1924 novel There Is Confusion. She went to Paris for the summers to study at the Sorbonne, a plan and a budget firmly in hand. I moved to Korea with a job, a few connections, and a month’s living expenses to survive off of until my first foreign paycheck arrived.

So as I write before work, in between classes, and on the weekends, I create from a secure place, which unlike for some artists, works better for me. I work on my novel. I post to the blog dedicated to my mystery series, I post to my feminist travel blog, and then I explore my new home.

So far, I’ve pushed my way through crowded food markets and temples in Seoul. As the only patron in a dive bar outside of Incheon Airport, I paid a dear price for Jim Beam bourbon and clapped enthusiastically for a dyed blonde middle-aged Korean man as he beautifully sang his heart out. I have taken a two dollar express bus to the coast and had lunch overlooking one of the prettiest bridges and bodies of water I’ve yet to encounter, and I have opened my first foreign bank account and received my first paycheck. And it’s only been a few weeks!

Experiences like the ones above will most likely make it into one of my travel blog posts, a short story, or some novel I have yet to imagine. The lovely reception I’ve received from Koreans after reading about some really harrowing events before moving here; the shock of discovering that Korean children seriously buck the stereotype of well-behaved Asian kids by wilding out nearly every class; and the startling vistas I’ve stumbled upon almost every time I wander around my adopted city will all most likely make the cut. But somethings won’t. Other things, sensations and impressions may not make it into my writing verbatim, but I have no doubt living in a foreign land (on a different continent) will permeate everything I write from now on.

Abiding in another culture, another language cannot fail to disturb the path I was on creatively (and personally) before I struck out on this new journey. Living in Korea for a year, perhaps longer if the kids don’t destroy me, will change me as deeply as moving to Harlem changed me. As I know, living in Harlem and then living as a citizen of the world changed some of our most treasured writers like Baldwin, Angelou, Chester Himes, and DuBois. Those are mighty scribes to share an inkwell with, but I believe they have prepared me for the challenge.

K.C. Washington is an educator, entrepreneur, member of The Harlem Writers Guild and author of Mourning Becomes Her.

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